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John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951)

Although a largely forgotten name today, John Alden Carpenter (28th February 1876- 26th April 1951) was among the foremost American composers of his time. The leading conductors of the period performed his orchestral music, and its great singers sang his songs. At the height of his fame in the early 1920s, he became the only American composer to write a commissioned score for Dyagilev’s Ballets Russes.
A descendant of the legendary pilgrim after whom he was named, Carpenter was born outside Chicago in Park Ridge, Illinois, into a prominent and cultivated family. He studied music with his mother and others in Chicago, with John Knowles Paine at Harvard, with Elgar briefly in Rome, and, most important, with the brilliant theorist Bernard Ziehn back in Chicago. He assumed an executive position in his father’s chandlery, but because the business was run largely by his brothers, he had ample time to pursue music.
With his wife, the extraordinary hostess Rue Winterbotham, he promoted the arts in Chicago, and came into contact with scores of prominent artists, from Picasso and Stravinsky to Irene Castle and Cole Porter. After Rue’s death, Carpenter married another prominent Chicagoan, Ellen Borden, whose son-in-law was Adlai Stevenson.
Carpenter first won national acclaim in the early 1910s for his songs, which revealed a sophisticated literary sensibility and a refined assimilation of contemporary European musical trends, but also a unique character, often alternating elegiac melancholy and whimsical humour, that many listeners found distinctively American. The success of his first orchestral work, Adventures in a Perambulator (1914), made his name even better known.
In subsequent years, Carpenter continued to write orchestral works, chamber music, songs, and solo piano pieces, as well as three seminal ballet scores: The Birthday of the Infanta (1917-18), Krazy Kat (1921), and Skyscrapers (1923-24), commissioned but never staged by the Ballets Russes. His Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (1915) was for decades a showpiece for Percy Grainger. Some of these works continued a path laid out by Adventures in their allusions to American popular music. Although by the end of his life his once fashionable music was often deemed dated, the better-known orchestral works were regularly revived and some of the songs, including the most famous of the song cycle, Gitanjali (1913), and the patriotic anthem, The Home Road (1917), remained in the repertory. Carpenter composed his popular Adventures in a Perambulator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its conductor Frederick Stock, who championed many of his works. This depiction of a day in the life of a baby, inspired by Carpenter’s only child, Ginny, represented an unusual conceit sooner encountered in comic strips than in music, and the work, in fact, was selected by Walt Disney for an ultimately aborted sequel to Fantasia.
Carpenter wrote extensive programme notes for the piece. In the first movement, En Voiture! (All Aboard!), the Baby sets out with its Nurse, the limping syncopation of the celesta melody said to have been inspired by a minor defect in one of the wheels of Ginny’s perambulator. The second movement, The Policeman, introduces an Irish cop, who engages in a flirtation with the Nurse before being interrupted by the impatient Baby. In the third movement, the Baby falls under the spell of a hurdy-gurdy player, whose repertory includes the Miserere from Il trovatore, Eduardo Di Capua’s popular Oh, Marie, and Irving Berlin’s hit, Alexander’s Ragtime Band. At the movement’s conclusion, the cop reappears, frightening away the player, and leaving only a memory of the "delightful forbidden music." The fourth movement, composed in part while Carpenter was on holiday on Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva, depicts Baby’s impressions of The Lake. For the Baby’s subsequent encounter with Dogs, Carpenter quotes both Septimus Winner’s Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone and Ach, du lieber Augustin. In the last movement, Dreams, the adventures of the day are recalled as Mother puts Baby to sleep with a tune similar to the French lullaby, Dodo, l’enfant do. Stock and the Chicago Symphony gave the first performance of Adventures in a Perambulator on 19th March 1915. The work was quickly taken up by all the great American orchestras and a number of international ones as well. In 1941 Carpenter brought forth a revised version, used here, that included sizeable cuts in The Lake and Dreams, and changes in orchestration throughout.
The First and Second Symphonies were both arrangements of earlier works. The First Symphony (1940) stemmed from an earlier First Symphony (1916-17), subtitled Sermons in Stones, after Shakespeare. Although well-received, the original First Symphony, a large three-movement work, never caught on, and when Stock requested a work for the fiftieth anniversary of the Chicago Symphony, Carpenter produced a new version of the piece, drastically paring down the sprawling original into a complex one-movement work full of mercurial changes of tempo and mood. Carpenter derived some of the themes from the earlier work, but he so overhauled the material that one best views the 1917 version as a rough sketch for this later work. Stock and the Chicago Symphony gave the first performance of the revised First Symphony on 24th October 1940.
"It is peaceful music," Carpenter noted at the time of its première, "and in these days, perhaps that is something."
Although it won kudos from Percy Grainger and others, and performances in the early 1940s by Fritz Reiner, Fabien Sevitzky, and Bruno Walter, the work subsequently fell into obscurity. The Second Symphony began life in 1941-1942 as an orchestral version of the composer’s 1934 Piano Quintet. Walter reaffirmed his appreciation of Carpenter by giving the first performance of the work with the New York Philharmonic on 22nd October 1942. In the ensuing years, Carpenter revised both the original Quintet (in 1946-47) and the Second Symphony (in 1947). This latter version of the symphony, used here, was given its first performance by Fritz Busch and the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia on 2nd July 1949 to good reviews. The evolution from the 1934 Quintet to the 1947 Second Symphony was a gradual one, as Carpenter retained his revisions from one version of the work to the next. All four versions of the work feature a brisk first movement, a sweetly yearning slow movement, and a bustling finale whose main theme derived from a tune the composer and his wife heard in Algiers while on holiday there in early 1934. Although the First and Second Symphony speak somewhat different stylistic languages - the former emerging from the composer’s work of the late teens, the latter from his work of the mid-1930s - both present a modern and sober romantic profile that sometimes suggests an American Nielsen or Roussel. Virgil Thomson’s description of the Second Symphony as "opulent and comfortable, intelligent, well organized, cultured and firm without being either ostentatious or unduly modest", seems applicable to the First Symphony as well. Like Adventures, both symphonies bespeak, in their charm and poetry, their rhythmic liveliness and lyrical warmth, the work of a composer who devoted much of his energies to ballet and song, but each has an intriguing and strong individuality of its own.
Howard Pollack